We like to showcase original student writing on our blog. CEO Ian talks to students about Disobedient Objects on Exeter University’s MRes in Critical Human Geographies. This was student Mara Murlebach’s response. She’s in Bonn. In 2016. Part of the Right to the City movement. Where sandwiches played a part…
Type ‘disobedient sandwich’ into the google search, and your screen will be populated with images of sandwiches whose fillings were dripping, drooping and falling out – some in a rather pleasant way (melted cheese), others not so much (lumpy salad). Disobedient sandwiches are rowdy. They do not behave.
We’re interested in Resolutions here at followthethings.com HQ. They inevitably have impacts on others elsewhere. Who welcomes them? Who worries about them? Here’s what UK restaurant critic Grace Dent says about going vegan, at least for the month of January (a.k.a. ‘Veganuary’). Dairy farmers are worried.
How the ‘follow the thing’ approach has become part of International Women’s Day campaigning. In 1907, the University of Chicago says:
‘A common version of the beginning of International Women’s Day starts … with a march of textile women workers in New York. Amidst public discussion about the conditions of textile workers and women’s campaign for suffrage, about 15,000 women working in needle and textile industries marched through New York City. The demonstrators sought to commemorate police brutality encountered in a women workers demonstration in 1857, as well as demanded shorter work hours, better pay and voting rights’ (source).
In 2016 REMAKE published online their film Celebrating the Women Behind Our Fashion. This year, OXFAM GB published online its films about Florina the Unstoppable Tomato Tree Farmer and Theresie and the Incredible Pineapple Harvest.
Read and watch!
Our CEO Ian Cook gave a talk about followthethings.com at an ‘Interdisciplinary Perspectives in Consumption Ethics’ seminar at the University of Leicester in June 2015. Afterwards, the speakers were asked to sit down and explain to camera how they had become interested in ‘ethical consumption’ as researchers. This is what he said…
Ian thanks Dierdre Shaw, Helen Gorowek and Andreas Chatzidakis for inviting him to present, Juliet Schor, Marylyn Carrigan and Caroline Moraes for their great talks, and Andreas for his at-ease interviewing skills.
Animation and humour can play powerful roles in trade justice campaigning. Perhaps the most well known example is the peanut who criticises the regulation of world trade in The Luckiest Nut in the World. See our page on that film here.
One recent example of this genre was launched In March 2013 in Switzerland. To make public the findings of their report on the sourcing of raw materials by Swiss chocolate manufacturers, Swiss NGO the Berne Declaration (aka Erklärung von Bern) commissioned animators / filmmakers Kompost to imagine what Chocolate Bunnies would do if they knew more about themselves. As Kompost state:
Easter in Switzerland is a busy time for the chocolate industry. Billions of delicious chocolate bunnies are produced by the grand masters of chocolate. Unfortunately, still many Swiss chocolate companies and retailers are producing their chocolate under exploitative conditions; a third even refuse to make a statement to this issue. EvB, a Swiss NGO responsible for fairer globalization, tries to put an end to this with the help of these ads.
The two commercials Kompost designed, directed and animated, show the EvB-chocolate bunny trying to take his life, as he simply cannot live knowing these shocking facts. With the help of a hair dryer and a hotplate, the chocolate bunny tries to melt his sorrows away. His attempts however fail, and he is left with the bitter reality.
We are going to love this week at followthethings.com HQ.
We’ve redesigned our website’s header for the season. Here it is:
[click the Cherubs’ banner, and you will get to this page]
We’re adding Finland’s favourite chocolate to our site, a new page created by University of Helsinki MPhil student Eeva Kemppainen. She’s working with us in Exeter this Spring. She is creating our first pages to be simultaneously published in English and Finnish.
We’ve started to tweet Valentine’s Day issues, stories and activism. Like this:
On Thursday, all of our efforts will come together in a public Lecture at the University of Exeter. It’s ‘The St Valentine’s Day public lecture: love, following, things.” Here’s the opening slide:
Here’s the description on its facebook event page:
Come take part in a public lecture and discussion that puts chocolate, renowned for its romancing qualities, under the spotlight this Valentine’s Day. Ian Cook (Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Exeter) will be using Finnish chocolate (following them through the world economy as physical goods) as a case study in a broader discussion of trade justice and emphatic socio-economic relations. The discussion will also cover the ways in which this approach to understanding the exchange of material goods can be taught and learned in universities, engaging students in the issue of trade justice activism in critical, creative and enthusiastic ways. The event will take place in the Peter Chalk Centre, lecture theatre Newman C. It will take place at 2pm on Thursday 14th February.
Everyone is welcome.
When doing the background research for the MoCC banana card (see below), we came a cross these definitions of ‘survival’ and ‘sustainable’ wages in a 2004 report on The real wage situation of male and female workers in eleven banana plantations in Costa Rica, in comparison to a sustainable living wage (link: p.11-12). The research was undertaken by Costa Rica’s Association of Labour Promotion Services (ASEPROLA) and Union of Agricultural Plantation Workers for the UK NGO Bananalink. We found the report on the Make Fruit Fair website. Its definitions of different kinds of wages should be useful in any classroom discussion in which students are asked to look at and/or research followthethings.com examples. It’s not only about the amount of money that people are paid, but what they can do with it…
The Centre for Reflection, Education and Action Inc (CREA) defines four levels of wages according to the categories of ‘survival wage’, ‘wage allowing for short-term planning’ and ‘sustainable living wage’.
In the first category, the marginal survival wage is not enough to cover the adequate basic needs. Even though it is enough to avoid hunger, it can lead to malnutrition, illnesses and probably early death.
Secondly, there is the basic survival wage, enough to meet immediate needs, including basic food, second-hand clothing, minimum shelter and energy to cook, but little else.
Thirdly, is a wage allowing for short-term planning, covering basic survival needs as well as the possibility of a small surplus income that allows for minimum planning. Such minimum planning allows improvement of survival, only from the payday until the next wage. Occasionally, it is possible to buy other basic products.
Fourthly, is the sustainable living wage, which allows workers to cover satisfactorily all their basic needs: food, clothes, housing, energy, transport, health services and education. It also allows the participation in cultural activities such as births and other religious festivals: celebration of First Communion, weddings, christenings, funerals, etc. With this wage, it is possible to save a small amount to plan future purchases of other products and the fulfilment of other needs that may arise.
Additionally, a sustainable living wage allows enough “discretional income” so that the worker can participate in the establishment of small businesses or activities in their communities, contributing also to the development of cultural and civic activities. In this sense, the level of wage makes long-term planning possible.
What we also like is the Make Fruit Fair’s short animation in which bananas and pineapples want YOU to take action on this. They have seen it all…
we publish an article (never published) describing the site, its motivations, and its low key ‘opening ceremony’ in the Eden Project’s Humid Tropics Biome on October 2nd 2011.
‘What would you say to the person who picked the banana in your lunchbox?’
Ian Cook et al, Department of Geography, University of Exeter
This are just two of the touching personal messages written by Eden Project visitors during 2011’s Harvest Festival week. Three Exeter University students and I set up a stall by the smoothie stand in the Humid Tropics Biome. We talked to passers-by about the plants that they had seen that day. ‘Which ones had produced ingredients for your clothes, shoes, lunch, anything you have with you?’ ‘Imagine a person who had, for example, picked the cotton in your top, tapped the rubber in your shoes or packed the banana in your lunchbox.’ ‘What would you say to her or him, if you had the chance?’
Almost everyone stopped to talk to us. Many said that they hadn’t thought much about this before. We provided postcards and pencils, and people spent time talking with their friends and family about exactly what they should write. We collected the cards. At the end of the day, we had 160 heartfelt, friendly and sometimes humorous messages.
Among them were [click a photo to see the whole set]:
That spot among the banana trees, coffee bushes and sugar canes was great for getting people thinking and talking about the ways in which the travels of things connect the lives of people. What we tried to do there was part of a much larger project. It’s focused around a ‘shopping’ website called followthethings.com.
Created with colleagues and students from Exeter and Brown Universities, it’s a database of documentary films, art work, journalism and other writing that aim to show the ‘hidden lives’ in everyday things. It has the look, feel and organisation of a normal online store, with goods available from grocery, fashion, electrical and other departments. This is, however, another kind of shopping.
In the Grocery department, for example, you click on the bananas and end up watching a trailer for, and reading all about, a 2009 documentary film that followed a group of Central American banana workers as they took the Dole fruit company to court for using a banned pesticide that had allegedly made them sterile. It’s a gripping ‘David versus Goliath’ courtroom drama. They win. They lose. Who is right? Who is wrong? How do you prove or disprove a case like this? Dole’s lawyers tried to prevent the film being released. This stirred up a heated discussion about corporations’ attempts to censor films that are critical of their treatment of workers. The debate continues…
Dole spent considerable time, money, and energy trying to silence this Swedish documentary … Ultimately these efforts … proved a public relations disaster.
Also in Grocery, you could click on the packet of mixed nuts. That would take you to a 23 minute animated film called ‘The luckiest nut in the world’, first shown on Channel 4 TV in 2002. The nut trade is skewed because the production of US peanuts is subsidised while that of the world’s other nuts is not. An animated peanut tells the story, strumming his guitar and singing Country & Western songs about the inequities of global trade regulation. This has been shown to countless school pupils. Comments on YouTube show that many found this funny, and some admitted that they couldn’t help humming its song about the World Trade Organisation. It seemed to stick in their minds…
No longer stuffy, didactic or earnest, the new breed of documentary … is attracting audiences who would normally shy away from the genre.
Also in Grocery, you could click on the fresh papaya, and find an academic paper that I wrote in 2004 called ‘Follow the thing: papaya’. This is what ultimately brought me to the Eden Project’s humid tropics biome, encouraged me to put this website together, and sparked me to question what we might say to the people who make the things we buy. I did my PhD in the early 1990s when the range of tropical fruits on UK supermarket shelves was starting to expand. All of the papaya on these shelves were grown in Jamaica. So I spoke to supermarket executives and importers in the UK, and to government officials, farm managers, foremen, pickers and packers in Jamaica. I spent 6 months working on one farm, spending long hours talking with packing house workers, washing, grading, wrapping and boxing the fruit with them.
… geographers require new techniques to provide consumers with resources to imagine their location in commodityscapes…
The way that they helped to get thousands and thousands papayas, of uniform size, quality and price from farm to shelf was a complex and often fraught business. Nothing seemed to be straightforward. Nobody along this commodity chain seemed to have a detailed sense of how its various parts worked together. They kept asking me! Everyone admitted partial responsibility, but nobody ultimately responsibility, for the farm workers’ increasing poverty and hardship. This was supposed to be Jamaica’s post-sugar, post-plantation, post-colonial export agriculture. It was. But also it wasn’t. The past was alive and present in the ruined plantation buildings at the centre of the farm, and in the conflicts that occasionally erupted between pickers, packers and their bosses. Meanwhile, these fruits were being marketed in the UK as products of some tropical paradise, where the fruit just fell from the trees.
This experience convinced me that stories of lives and trade shouldn’t be over-simplified. There was no straightforward right or wrong, cause or effect, supply and demand, ‘do nothing’ or ‘do something’ story to tell. When I returned to the UK, I went back in to the supermarkets, and looked for the papayas picked, packed and shipped by the people I had met. They looked and felt very different to me, now. They had much more ‘life’ to them. So, I wondered, how could I encourage people who read my research papers to appreciate papaya – or any commodity for that matter – in the way that I had learned to appreciate them? How could I write about what I had learned in ways that might grab people, stick in their imaginations, provoke thought and discussion, have the same effect on them that it had had on me?
Researching with my students the 50-plus examples showcased on followthethings.com has begun to address these questions. The ways in which different examples try to encourage deeper appreciations of global trade via courtroom drama, cartoon humour, reality TV (have you seen ‘Blood, Sweat and Tshirts’? [not yet on the site]), fake websites advertising things that should but don’t exist (a ‘conflict free’ iPhone?), and many more, is fascinating and important. Now that there’s so much user generated content on the internet, the effects of this work on its audiences is much easier to appreciate. By putting in one place these examples and what’s been said about them, we hope that followthethings.com will inform and encourage discussions about trade justice in schools, universities, and plenty of other places, as well as informing and encouraging new following work not just by filmmakers, artists and academics, but by anyone with a computer and broadband connection. FIY: follow it yourself…
Ian is an Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Exeter [more]. He took part in the Eden Project’s Harvest Festival events on Sunday 2nd October 2011 with students Jack Parkin, Maura Pavalow and Alice Goodbrook. A shorter version of this article was published on the Eden Project Blog on 9 October 2011: here.
Students taking Ian Cook’s ‘Geographies of material culture’ module are now researching the following examples to produce new ‘compilation pages’ for publication on followthethings.com.
Help with our research?
If you know of any good discussions, interviews, videos and any related information on any of the sources below, please comment on this post. Thanks…
Starbucks Coffee, iPhones and tents: Louise Mensch on Occupy London (BBCTV Have I Got News For You, 26 October 2011: watch here).
Various food: Food Inc documentary (2009: watch trailer).
Hamburber: McLibel film (2005: watch trailer).
Nike training shoes: Jonah Perretti’s Nike ID emails (2001: read emails).
Various clothing: ‘Primark: on the rack’ BBCTV Panorama documentary (2008: doc webpage).
Jeans: China blue documentary (2005: watch trailer).
Various clothing: Kelsey Timmerman’s Where am I wearing? book (2008: watch trailer).
iPhone: The agony and the ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Mike Daisey monologue (2011: watch interview)
Various electricals: Maquilapolis documentary (2006: watch trailer).
iPhone: PhoneStory app (2011: watch review/demo).
Various toys: Santa’s workshop: inside China’s slave labor toy factories documentary (2006? watch whole film).